Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part III

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part three in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

04. No shortage of high-profile assassinations and abductions in 2019. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, suspicious deaths and abductions in 2019. In January, the Dutch government officially accused Iran of ordering the contract murders of two Iranian men on Dutch soil in 2015 and 2017. The accusation prompted Iran to expel two Dutch diplomats from Tehran, which in turn prompted Holland to recall its ambassador from the Iranian capital. In March, a medical examination suggested that Mikhail Yuriyevich Lesin, a former senior adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who died allegedly by falling while intoxicated in a luxury hotel room in Washington, may in fact have been strangled to death. According to the medical examiner —whose name has been redacted in the declassified report— the state of Lesin’s hyoid bone showed signs of “hanging or manual strangulation” or asphyxiation. Also in March, Daniel Forestier, a former paramilitary officer in France’s Directorate-General for External Security (DGSE), who was under investigation for allegedly plotting to kill General Ferdinand Mbahou, a senior Congolese opposition figure, was shot dead in the French Alps. According to a police report, Forestier had been shot five times in the chest and head in what a public prosecutor described as “a professional job”. In August, German authorities accused Moscow of ordering the assassination in Berlin of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a 40-year-old Chechen separatist who was shot in the head in broad daylight by a man wearing a wig and carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer. In October, Yossi Cohen, the chief of the Mossad —Israel’s main external intelligence agency— said in an interview that he had authorized “more than a few” assassinations during his tenure and warned that more may be on the way. In October, Iranian authorities announced the capture of Ruhollah Zam, a Paris-based Iranian dissident, who was reportedly lured out of France and then abducted by Iranian agents in a third country. It was later reported that the Iranian government may have used a female intelligence officer to lure Zam from his home in France to Iraq, where he was abducted by Iranian security forces and secretly transported to Iran. In November, Ibragim Eldzharkiev, a senior counter-terrorism officer in the Russian police, was gunned down along with his brother in a downtown Moscow street, in what authorities described as a contract killing.

03. Saudi Arabia hired Twitter employees to spy on users. In November US authorities charged two Saudi-born employees of the social media firm Twitter with spying on American soil. They also charged a member of staff of Saudi Arabia’s royal family with handling the two employees. They were allegedly recruited in 2015, on orders from the Saudi government, to spy on the identities of anonymous Twitter users who posted negative views of Saudi Arabia’s ruling dynasty. The employees gave the Saudis private information that included the email addresses, IP addresses and dates of birth of up to 6,000 Twitter users, who had posted negative comments about the Saudi royal family on social media. One of the two Twitter employees reportedly managed to escape to the oil kingdom before he was captured by the FBI. Remarkably, only a day after the US Department of Justice charged the three Saudi citizens with engaging in espionage on American soil, Saudi officials hosted in Riyadh Gina Haspel, the director of the CIA, reportedly to discuss “the longstanding Saudi-US partnership”.

02. A wiretapping scandal of vast proportions was unearthed in Spain. At the beginning of 2019, a Spanish court widened an investigation into an illegal network that spied on scores of politicians, business executives, journalists and judges for over 20 years. At the center of the case is José Manuel Villarejo, a 67-year-old former police chief, who allegedly spied on hundreds of unsuspecting citizens on behalf of corporate competitors and individual wealthy clients. A year earlier, five active police officers and an employee of Spain’s tax revenue service admitted to working for Villarejo’s network. They disclosed information about Operation KITCHEN, an espionage effort that targeted Luis Bárcenas, a senator and party treasurer of Spain’s conservative Partido Popular, who was eventually jailed for 33 years for his role in the so-called Gürtel case. The Gürtel case was the largest corruption scandal in modern Spanish history, and brought down the conservative government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in July of 2017. The BBVA, Spain’s largest bank, is also accused of having made illicit payments of nearly $11.1 million to Villarejo for over 13 years.

01. US weapons given to UAE and Saudi Arabia are diverted to al-Qaeda. Weapons supplied to the Saudi and Emirati governments by the United States and other Western nations are ending up in the hands of al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militias in Yemen, according to two separate investigations. The weapons are being supplied to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) by the West on the understanding that they will be used in the war in Yemen, in support of the country’s Sunni-dominated government. Since 2015, the Yemeni state has been at war with an Iran-backed alliance of rebel groups from Yemen’s Shiite communities, known as the Houthi movement. In an effort to support Yemen’s Sunni government, Western countries have supplied Saudi Arabia and the UAE with more than $5 billion-worth of weaponry. However, a report published in February by Amnesty International alleged that some of that weaponry, including machine guns, mortars and even armored vehicles, are being deliberately diverted to Sunni militia groups in Yemen, which have al-Qaeda links. A separate investigation aired by CNN claimed that weaponry given by Washington to the Saudi and Emirati militaries has been ending up in the hands of Salafist militias in Yemen. Among them is the Sunni Abu al-Abbas Brigade, which is closely linked to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

This is part three in a three-part series; Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 2 January 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part II

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

07. Western spy agencies hacked into Russia’s version of Google. Media reports tend to portray Western intelligence agencies as constantly defending themselves against cyber attacks from abroad —notably from North Korea, Iran and Russia. The reality of cyber espionage is far more complicated, as intelligence agencies from all sides adopt defensive and offensive postures, often concurrently. One example of this complexity emerged in last June, when the Reuters news agency reported that Western spy agencies used a malware described as the “crown jewel” of cyber-espionage tools to hack into Russia’s version of Google. The hackers targeted Yandex (Яндекс), the largest technology venture company in the Russian Federation and the fifth most popular search engine in the world. Yandex also provides services such as mapping and email in Russia and several other countries in Central Asia and the Middle East. The hackers appeared to be interested in acquiring technical information about how Yandex authenticates user accounts. That information could potentially enable them to impersonate Yandex users and access private information such as email messages, geolocation information, and other sensitive data. Reuters said that the hackers attempted to breach Yandex for purposes of espionage, not sabotage or disruption, or stealing intellectual property for commercial purposes.

06. The CIA may have lost 17 of its spies in Iran. If the announcements from Tehran are to be believed, the United States Central Intelligence Agency lost at least 17 spies in Iran in the months leading up to March 2019. According to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence, the Islamic Republic busted an alleged “CIA network” operating in sensitive private sector companies and government agencies that relate to defense, aerospace and energy. At least some of the 17 alleged spies have reportedly been sentenced to death, though their exact number remains unknown. As we explained in July, losing 17 assets in one big sweep sounds fantastical. However, if it is true, it would mark one of the biggest intelligence-collection disasters in the CIA’s 72-year history. What may be equally worrying for the CIA is that the Iranians claim to have visually identified a number of CIA case officers, whose job is to recruit and handle foreign assets. If the Iranians are telling the truth, many units at the CIA will be in recovery mode for quite some time.

05. NATO allies use spy agencies to back opposing sides in Libyan War. The chaos that is the Libyan Civil War deepened this year, largely because foreign countries are backing opposing sides in the conflict. In April, several European Union member-states, led by Italy, criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. France has joined the United States, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, in supporting the Libyan National Army (LNA), which is led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Haftar is an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011 he returned to Libya in order to launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The GNA is supported by Italy, and more recently Turkey, which has offered to send troops to help the GNA in its war against the LNA. It is wroth noting that, in 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle.

This is part two in a three-part series; Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 1 January 2020 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2019, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2020 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2019. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is here. Part three is available here.

10. Germany’s BND now boasts the world’s largest spy headquarters. In February, German Chancellor Angela Merkel inaugurated the Zentrale des Bundesnachrichtendienstes, which is the new headquarters of the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND). The BND, which operates as Germany’s foreign-intelligence service, is now believed to be the owner of the largest headquarters of any spy agency in the world. Interestingly, the German spy agency employs fewer than 7,000 employees, which is only a fraction of the employees employed by the BND’s American, Russian or Chinese equivalents. Some analysts have interpreted this development as part of Germany’s attempt to reassert itself as a major player in the global security landscape, especially following the election of US President Donald Trump, whom Berlin views as being disinterested in European security. During her inauguration speech, Chancellor Merkel said that the world was becoming “increasingly confusing”, which made the need for a “strong and efficient [German] foreign intelligence service […] more urgent than ever”. Interestingly, the new complex features a sizeable visitor’s center that is open to the public, making the BND the world’s first foreign intelligence agency with a public-access visitors’ facility.

09. Israel extends intelligence document classification period to 90 years. Israel, home of one of the world’s most active intelligence communities, augmented the secrecy of its espionage apparatus by raising the classification period of official intelligence documents to 90 years. Until the end of last January, government documents produced by Israel’s spy agencies, such as its external spy organization, the Mossad, or its domestic security agency, the Shin Bet, could remain hidden from public view for up to 70 years. In 2018, Israel’s Supreme Council of Archives, a body within the Israel State Archives that advises the Office of the Prime Minister on matters of classification, recommended against extending the classification period by more than five years. But in early 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected the recommendation and managed to pass an amendment to the classification regulations, which will keep documents secret for 90 years from now on. The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, which published news of the amended regulation, said that documents from 1949, the year that the Shin Bet and the Mossad were founded, would normally have been published this year. But now they will remain hidden from public view until 2039. Documents relating to more recent cases will not be released until 2100.

08. The CIA kept a secret communication channel with North Korea for 10 years. The overtures made in recent years by US President Donald Trump to North Korea surprised many —but probably not the United States Central Intelligence Agency. In an article published in July, The Wall Street Journal claimed that an intelligence channel between the CIA and North Korean intelligence officials has been active for at least a decade. The previously unreported channel has led to a number of public meetings, such as the 2014 visit to Pyongyang by James Clapper, the then US Director of National Intelligence, as well as an earlier visit to the North Korean capital by former US President Bill Clinton in 2009. However, most of the contacts have been secret. They include several visits to North Korea by CIA official Joseph DeTrani before and after Clinton’s visit, as well as two trips to Pyongyang by CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, in 2012 and 2013. His successor, Avril Haines, also visited North Korea, said The Journal, but noted that the channel went “dormant late in the Obama administration”. Upon becoming CIA director following the election of Trump to the presidency, Mike Pompeo was briefed about the secret channel’s existence and decided to resume it, with Trump’s agreement. That led to his eventual visit to North Korea along with Andrew Kim, who at the time headed the CIA’s Korea Mission Center. Eventually, this channel of communication facilitated the high-level summit between Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in June 2018 in Singapore.

This is part one in a three-part series; Part two is here. Part three is available here.

Author: J. Fitsanakis and I. Allen | Date: 31 December 2019 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part three in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part two is available here.

04. China flexes its HUMINT muscle. Much has been written about China’s cyber-espionage capabilities. These are undoubtedly formidable and growing. But in 2018 Beijing also showed that it is becoming increasingly active in human intelligence —namely the use of human spies to clandestinely collect information. In January, the FBI arrested Jerry Chun Shing Lee, 53, who served in the CIA from 1994 to 2007, accusing him of having received “hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash” by China in exchange for carrying out espionage. In May, France confirmed the arrests of two French intelligence officers who are accused of spying for the Chinese government. The suspects are current and former officers in the General Directorate of External Security (DGSE), France’s primary external intelligence agency. At least one of the two suspects was reportedly stationed at the embassy of France in Beijing when French counterintelligence became aware of his alleged espionage. And in October the DGSE, along with France’s domestic security agency, the DGSI, warned of an “unprecedented threat” to security after nearly 4,000 leading French civil servants, scientists and senior executives were found to have been approached by Chinese spies using the popular social media network LinkedIn.

03. The Islamic State is quickly evolving into a clandestine organization. Earlier this month, US President Donald Trump announced that the Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) had been defeated and that the he would be removing all US forces from Syria. Virtually no Western intelligence agency agrees with the view that ISIS has been defeated. In August, the US Department of Defense reported to Congress that ISIS retains over 30,000 armed fighters in Iraq and Syria. Another report by the United Nations’ Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team warned that ISIS is morphing into a “covert version” of its former self and that its organizational core remains mostly intact in both Iraq and Syria. Earlier this month, the US Pentagon warned again that ISIS is swiftly returning to its insurgent roots, as observers in Iraq and Syria cautioned that the group is witnessing a revival. What is more, recent analysis by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting says that a campaign of revenge by Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government against Sunni Arabs in regions once controlled by ISIS is aiding Islamists and fueling another pro-ISIS rebellion in the country. Overall, there are today four times as many Sunni Islamist militants in the world than on September 11, 2001, according to a study published in November by the bipartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

02. Nearly 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by 24 countries over Skripal poisoning. Relations between Russia and much of the West reached a new low this year, with the expulsion of nearly 150 Russian diplomats from two dozen countries around the world. The unprecedented expulsions came in response to Britain’s worldwide diplomatic effort to condemn Russia for the attempted assassination of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, England, which was allegedly carried out by Russian government agents. They were publicized with a series of coordinated announcements that were issued from nearly every European capital, as well as from Washington, Ottawa and Canberra. By the early hours of March 13, the number of Russian diplomatic expulsions had reached 118 —not counting the 23 Russian “undeclared intelligence officers” that had been expelled from Britain the previous week. As intelNews explained at the time, the expulsions sent a strong political message to Moscow and did disrupt the Kremlin’s intelligence activities in the West. But they are expected to have a limited effect on Russia’s ability to carry out intelligence operations on foreign soil of the kind that allegedly targeted Skripal.

01. CIA suffered ‘catastrophic’ compromise of its spy communication system. That was alleged in a major report published by Yahoo News, which cited “conversations with eleven former US intelligence and government officials directly familiar with the matter”. The report described the compromise of an Internet-based covert platform used by the CIA to facilitate the clandestine communication between CIA case officers and their sources —known as agents or spies— around the world. It reportedly caused a “catastrophic” compromise of the system that the CIA uses to communicate with spies, which caused the death of “dozens of people around the world” according to sources. What is more, the report suggested that the CIA was warned about the potential shortcomings of its online communication system before 2009, when the first penetrations began to occur. In response to the compromise, the CIA has reportedly modified, and at times completely abandoned, its online communication system. However, the implications of the system’s compromise continue to “unwind worldwide” and the CIA is “still dealing with the fallout”, according to Yahoo News. The effects on the agency’s operational work are likely to persist for years, it said.

This is part three in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part three is here.

07. Russia accused of using ISIS hacker group as cover to launch cyber attacks. The group calling itself Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which later renamed itself Islamic State. Today the Cyber Caliphate boasts a virtual army of hackers from dozens of countries, who are ostensibly operating as the online arm of the Islamic State. Their known activities include a strong and often concentrated social-media presence, as well as computer hacking, primarily in the form of cyber-espionage and cyber-sabotage. But a report issued in October by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre described the Cyber Caliphate and other similar hacker groups as “flags of convenience” for the Kremlin. The report echoed the conclusion of a German government report that was leaked to the media in June of 2016, which argued that the Cyber Caliphate is a fictitious front group created by Russia.

06. Outgoing CIA director said US killed ‘couple of hundred’ Russians in Syria. Sources from the US Pentagon, said that the armed confrontation took place on February 7, 2018, when a 500-strong Syrian government force, which allegedly included hundreds of contracted Russian soldiers crossed the Euphrates River and entered Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria’s northeastern Deir al-Zour region. US-supported Kurdish forces in the area, which include embedded American troops, responded with artillery fire, while US military aircraft also launched strikes on the Syrian government forces. The latter withdrew across the Euphrates after suffering heavy losses. The US side is said to have estimated at the time that over 100 attackers had been left dead, with another 200-300 injured. The toll later rose to nearly 400 dead. At a press conference held soon after the armed clash, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis refused to discuss the matter. But on April 12, the outgoing director of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, appeared to acknowledge that US troops killed hundreds of Russians in Deir al-Zour. He was speaking before a committee of the US Senate during a hearing pertaining to his nomination to serve as the next US secretary of state. Pompeo said that: “in Syria, now, a handful of weeks ago the Russians met their match. A couple of hundred Russians were killed”.

05. Iran tried to bomb conference in France with over 30 senior US officials present. On June 30, members of Belgium’s Special Forces Group arrested a married Belgian couple of Iranian descent in Brussels. The couple were found to be carrying explosives and a detonator. On the following day, German police arrested an Iranian diplomat stationed in Iran’s embassy in Vienna, Austria. And on the same day, a fourth person was arrested by authorities in France, reportedly in connection with the three other arrests. All four individuals appear to have been charged with a foiled plot to bomb the annual conference of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) that took place on June 30 in Paris. The NCRI is led by Mujahedin-e Khalq, a militant group that was designated as a terrorist group by the European Union and the United States until 2009 and 2012 respectively. But it has since been reinstated in both Brussels and Washington, reportedly because it provides the West with a vehicle to subvert the Iranian government. NCRI conference participants included over 30 senior US officials, including US President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who addressed the meeting. Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, also spoke at the conference.

This is part two in a three-part series; part one is available here. Part three is here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 28 December 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2018, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we believe were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2019 may bring in this highly unpredictable field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2018. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; Part two is available here. Part three is here.

10. Taiwan admits that Chinese general Liu Liankun was one of its spies. In April, the government of Taiwan acknowledged publicly for the first time that Liu Liankun, a Chinese major general who was executed by Beijing in 1999 for espionage, was indeed one of its spies. Liu, who headed the Department of General Logistics of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, was accused by the Chinese government of having spied for Taiwan for five years, in exchange for nearly $2 million in bribes. He was eventually executed by lethal injection in a Beijing prison. He was 58. At the time of his conviction, Liu was the most senior Chinese military officer to have ever been convicted of spying for Taiwan. The island nation denied that Liu spied on its behalf and refused to acknowledge that it had any role in his espionage activities. But in April Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau unveiled its renovated memorial at its headquarters in Taipei City. Among the plaques, visitors to the memorial saw one dedicated to Liu for the first time.

09. Israel charges former cabinet minister with spying for Iran. In 1992, when he was 35, Gonen Segev, was elected as one of the Knesset’s youngest members, representing the conservative Tzomet party. Initially an opposition Knesset member, Segev eventually left Tzomet and joined a governing coalition with the Labor Party, in which he served as Minister of Energy and Infrastructure. In 2004, after exiting politics, Segev was arrested on a flight from Holland while reportedly trying to smuggle several thousand ecstasy pills into Israel. He was jailed for five years but was released from prison in 2007, after a commendation for good conduct. Shortly after his release, Segev moved to the Nigerian city of Abuja, where he practiced medicine. It was there, the Shin Bet claims, that he was recruited by Iranian intelligence. He was reportedly detained in May of this year during a trip to Equatorial Guinea, following a request by Israeli officials. He was then extradited to Israel and arrested as soon as he arrived in Tel Aviv. Israel’s Shin Bet security service said that Segev admitted being in regular contact with Iranian intelligence agents in Nigeria, where he lived after 2007, and other countries around the world. He also said that he was given a fake passport by his handlers, which he used to visit Iran on two separate occasions in order to hold secret meetings with Iranian intelligence officers.

08. European Union agrees to establish joint intelligence training school. In November, 25 members of the European Union agreed to establish a joint intelligence training academy, a move interpreted by some as a concrete effort to deepen inter-European security cooperation following Brexit. The announcement came just hours after leading EU heads of state spoke in favor of establishing a joint EU defense force. Calls for tighter cooperation between EU members in the areas of defense and security have been issued for decades. But the upcoming departure of Britain from the EU —popularly known as Brexit— appears to have prompted Germany and France to propose deeper integration as a response to the rise of anti-EU sentiment across the continent. The new intelligence academy initiative will be led by Greece —an EU member since 1981— and will be headquartered in Cyprus, which joined the EU in 2004. It will work in cooperation with the individual intelligence agencies of the 25 co-signatory states, along with NATO and with other regional security bodies.

This is part one in a three-part series; Part two is available here. Part three is here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 27 December 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part III

Year in ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Mohammed bin Salman04. Unprecedented security changes are taking place in Saudi Arabia. Analysts agree that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is undergoing its most important political changes in generations. On November 4, 2017, nearly 50 senior Saudi officials, including at least 11 princes, some of them among the world’s wealthiest people, were suddenly fired or arrested. A royal decree issued on that same evening said that the arrests were carried out by a new “anti-corruption committee” led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the king’s 32-year-old son, who is first in line to the throne. The king and his son appear to be in the process of removing their last remaining critics from the ranks of the Kingdom’s security services, which they now control almost completely. Earlier in the year, the BBC alleged that Saudi security services were secretly abducting Saudi dissidents from abroad and jailing them in Saudi Arabia. Also in November, Saudi Arabia was seen to be behind a failed attempt by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri —a dual Lebanese-Saudi citizen— to resign while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. There were allegations that Hariri was under arrest by the Saudis, who objected to the presence of Hezbollah members in his cabinet. But Hariri later returned to Lebanon and rescinded his resignation.

03. Extraordinary transformation of the intelligence landscape in South Korea. Developments in North Korea have been at the forefront of security reporting in recent months. But reports from the Korean Peninsula have largely ignored the dramatic changes Moon Jae-intaking place in the intelligence infrastructure of South Korea, which are arguably as important as developments north of the 38th parallel. In June, the new center-left government of President Moon Jae-in banned the powerful National Intelligence Service (NIS) from engaging in domestic intelligence gathering. The move came after a lengthy investigation concluded that the NIS interfered in the 2012 presidential elections and tried to alter the outcome in favor of the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, using 30 dedicated teams of officers for that purpose. In November, three former NIS directors were charged with secretly diverting funds from the agency’s clandestine budget to aid Park, who has since been impeached and is now facing a lengthy prison sentence.

02. Turkey’s fallout with the West is affecting spy relations. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. However, rising tensions in the country’s domestic political scene are negatively affecting Ankara’s relations with its Western allies, particularly with Germany and the United States. Last month, Turkey issued an arrest warrant for Graham Fuller, an 80-year-old former analyst in the CIA, who Ankara says helped orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Washington flatly denies these allegations. In May, the Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu accused “the secret services of [Western] countries” of “using journalists and also bloggers [as spies] in Turkey”. Earlier in the year, a German report claimed that the Turkish state had asked its diplomats stationed all over Europe to spy on Turkish expatriate communities there, in order t to identify those opposed to the government of President Erdoğan. In some cases, Turkish spies have asked their Western European counterparts to help them monitor the activities Turkish expatriates, but such requests have been turned down. Nevertheless, there is increasing unease in Western Europe as Turkey intensifies its unilateral intelligence activities aimed at monitoring political dissent among Turkish communities abroad.

01. With America divided, Russian spies make dramatic post-Cold War comeback. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a traumatic experience for the once all-powerful Russian spy agencies. But, if CIA and FBI assessments are correct, the bitterly divisive state of American politics gave Russian spooks a chance for a dramatic comeback. Using a mixture of human and online intelligence operations, Russian spies helped drive a wedge between the White House and the US Intelligence Community. American intelligence agencies are tasked with providing information to Putin and Trumpassist policy-makers, including the president. So when the CIA and the FBI conclude that the Russian government launched an extensive and sophisticated campaign to undermine the 2016 US presidential election, one expects the president to take that advisement under serious consideration. However, the US leader has openly dismissed the conclusions of his own Intelligence Community and has publicly stated that he believes President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that his country did not meddle in the US election.

What we have here, therefore, is a US president who sees the Kremlin as more trustworthy than his own Intelligence Community. This is a remarkable, unprecedented state of affairs in Washington, so much so that some CIA officials have reportedly questioned whether it is safe for them to share information about Russia to President Trump. Throughout that time, the FBI has been conducting an extensive counterintelligence investigation into alleged ties between the president’s campaign team and the Kremlin. As intelNews has noted before, the FBI probe adds yet another layer of complexity in an already intricate affair, from which the country’s institutions will find it difficult to recover for years to come, regardless of the outcome of the investigation. The state of Russian politics may be uncertain, and the country’s economy in bad shape. But Russian spooks can look back to 2017 as the year in which they made an unexpected comeback, scoring a dramatic victory against their decades-old rival.

This is the last part in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part two is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 03 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three will be posted tomorrow.

07. 2017 was marked by high-profile assassinations and suspicious deaths. There was no shortage of assassinations, assassination attempts, and suspicious deaths in 2017. In January, Brazilian authorities launched an investigation into a suspicious plane crash that killed Supreme Court judge Teori Zavascki, who died while leading the largest corruption probe in the nation’s history, involving government officials and two giant companies. In February, Vladimir Kara-Murza, a leading member of Open Russia, a think tank founded by Russian oligarchs opposed to Russian president Vladimir Putin, nearly died Kim Jong-namas a result of “acute poisoning from an undefined substance”, according to his doctors. Also in February, Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, was killed in an audacious attack in Malaysia by two female assassins, who used a poisonous substance to murder him. Some alleged that Kim, who was a critic of his brother’s policies in the DPRK, had made contact with US intelligence prior to his assassination. In March, the Israeli military alleged that Amine Badreddine, 55, an explosives expert and senior military commander in the military wing of Hezbollah, was murdered by his own people while fighting in Syria. Allegedly the Iranians wanted him killed because he disputed the authority of Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who is often credited with having saved the Syrian government from demise during the Syrian Civil War. In October, Malta’s best known investigative journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose reporting about offshore tax evasion revealed in the Panama papers prompted a major political crisis in Malta, was killed when the rented Peugeot 108 car she was driving exploded near her home in central Malta. Eyewitnesses said that the explosion was so powerful that it tore apart the vehicle and was heard from several miles away. Finally, in November, Zhang Yang, one of the highest-profile generals in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, committed suicide according to Chinese state media. Zhang Yang had seen a meteoric rise to power, but unceremoniously fell from grace as a result of President Xi Jinping’s nationwide campaign against corruption.

06. CIA ends its support for opposition rebels in Syria. In February, the White House instructed the CIA to halt military support to armed groups that are associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The move ended a policy that begun under US President Donald Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. Some analysts warned that the decision by the White House to terminate US Milo Dukanovicsupport for the rebels could backfire by causing the suddenly unemployed fighters to join jihadist organizations. In August, there were reports that US troops exchanged fire with former FSA rebels in Manbij, a Syrian city located a few miles from the Turkish border.

05. Britain accused Russia of trying to kill Montenegro prime minister. In late 2016, authorities in the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro alleged that “nationalists from Russia and Serbia” were behind a failed plot to kill the country’s prime minister,  Milo Dukanović, and spark a pro-Russian coup in the country. Remarkably, in March of 2017, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said in an interview that Russian spies may have indeed orchestrated the failed attempt to kill Dukanović, as part of a broader plan to prevent the former Yugoslav republic from entering NATO. It is not every day that a senior cabinet official of a NATO member-state accuses the Kremlin of carrying out an assassination attempt against a European head of state.

This is part two in a three-part series. Part one is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 02 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The biggest spy-related stories of 2017, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we see as the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2018 may bring in this highly volatile field, we give you our selection of the top spy stories of 2017. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a three-part series; parts two and three will be posted on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

khalifa haftar10. Saudis, Israelis, are illegally funding a CIA-backed warlord in Libya. The strongest faction in the ongoing Libyan Civil War is the eastern-based Tobruk-led Government, which is affiliated with the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of Colonel Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under CIA protection for several decades before returning to Libya in 2011 to launch his military campaign. American legal experts, including a former special counsel to the United States Department of Defense and a Harvard University law professor, accuse Haftar of ordering his troops to commit war crimes. But there is much evidence to suggest that Israeli, Saudi and Emirati intelligence agencies are illegally breaking a United Nations-imposed arms embargo on Libya and arming Haftar with advanced weaponry.

09. Why are American, Canadian diplomats in Havana going deaf? In 2015, relations between Cuba and the United States experienced an unprecedented rekindling, which culminated with the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after more than half a century. But in the past year, US authorities became enraged with the Cuban government after American diplomats reportedly suffered hearing loss and brain trauma as a result of a mysterious so-called “covert sonic weapon” that was directed against the American embassy. The US State Department blamed Cuba for the incident, but some believe that US embassy Cubathe alleged device may have been deployed by an intelligence service of a third country —possibly Russia— without the knowledge of the Cuban authorities. In October, the White House expelled 15 Cuban diplomats from the US in response to the incident. But the question of what harmed the health of at least 20 employees at the US embassy in Havana remains largely unanswered.

08. Role of spies in German-Swiss economic war revealed. In the wake of the Panama and Paradise leaks, offshore tax havens have faced intensifying worldwide calls for the introduction of transparency and accountability safeguards. Predictably, they are resisting. In April of 2017, German authorities announced the arrest of an employee of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) in Frankfurt. It appears that the Swiss man, identified only as Daniel M., was monitoring the activities of German tax-fraud investigators who have been trying for years to prevent German citizens from having secret bank accounts abroad. It is believed that he was arrested while monitoring German efforts to approach potential whistleblowers working in the Swiss banking sector. A few months after Daniel M.’s arrest, Germany announced an unprecedented investigation into three more officers of the NDB, on suspicion that they spied on German tax investigators who were probing the activities of Swiss banks.

This is part one in a three-part series. Part two is available here. Part three is available here.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis  and Ian Allen | Date: 01 January 2018 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part II

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part one here.

5. Turkey’s intelligence agency wins the 2016 ‘clueless’ award. It seems everyone predicted the July 15 coup in Turkey, except its spy agency. Unlike countless political analysts in Turkey and abroad, who have been warning about a possible coup as early as October 2015, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) was caught in the dark. So unprepared was the agency, that it was unable to defend its headquarters in Ankara from an attack on the morning of July 16 by military helicopters. Meanwhile, dozens of Turkish nationals with diplomatic passports have been applying for political asylum in Germany and elsewhere since the coup. How many of those are MİT personnel, one wonders?

4. Panama papers leak shows immense extent of global financial crime. This year saw the unauthorized release of the Panama Papers, 11.5 million leaked documents that represent history’s largest leak. The documents were leaked form the vaults of the secretive Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, and reveal secret information relating to over 200,000 offshore entities. This website opined at the time that the Panama Papers reveal the enormous extent of tax evasion and money laundering on a worldwide scale, which now directly threatens the very survival of the postwar welfare state. National intelligence agencies must begin to view offshore tax evasion as an existential threat to the security of organized government and need to augment their economic role as part of their overall mission to protect and secure law-abiding citizens.

3. Nuclear power plant computers found to be infected with viruses. In April, the computers of Gundremmingen, a nuclear power plant in southern Germany, were found to be infected with computer viruses that are designed to steal files and provide attackers with remote control of the system. The power plant is located in Germany’s southern district of Günzburg, about 75 miles northwest of the city of Munich. It is owned and operated by RWE AG, Germany’s second-largest electricity producer. RWE AG insisted that the malware did not pose a threat to the nuclear power plant’s computer systems, because the facility is not connected to the Internet. But there was no explanation of how the viruses found their way into the nuclear power plant’s systems in the first place.

2. German intelligence accuses Russia of pretending to be ISIS online. In June, a German intelligence report alleged that the so-called ‘Cyber Caliphate’, the online hacker wing of the Islamic State, is in fact a Russian front, ingeniously conceived to permit Moscow to hack Western targets without retaliation. The Cyber Caliphate first appeared in early 2014, purporting to operate as the online wing of ISIS. Now, however, a German intelligence report claims that the Cyber Caliphate is in fact a project of APT28 (also known as ‘Pawn Storm’), a notorious Russian hacking collective with close ties to Russian intelligence. The findings of the German intelligence report echo previous assessments by French and American authorities.

1. Intelligence features heavily in domestic US politics. Many, including this website, saw last week’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by US President Barack Obama as a move directed “more towoard domestic American politics than foreign policy”. The expulsion aimed to expose Moscow’s alleged campaign of interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections. But another of its goals was to force president-elect Donald Trump, seen widely as a Russo-file, to take sides. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying Moscow “reserves the right” to retaliate, but would not do so at this point. The Russian response was unexpected and highly uncharacteristic, an important reminder of the uncharted waters that US politics –and US-Russian relations– have entered in 2016. Still, it is remarkable to see the president-elect of the US effectively side with the Kremlin and not with his own country’s Intelligence Community. If nothing more, 2017 promises to be exceedingly interesting from an intelligence point of view.

This is part two in a two-part series; you can access part I here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in review: The 10 biggest spy-related stories of 2016, part I

End of Year ReviewSince 2008, when we launched intelNews, it has been our end-of-the-year tradition to take a look back and highlight what we think were the most important intelligence-related stories of the past 12 months. In anticipation of what 2017 may bring in this highly volatile field, we present you with our selection of the top spy stories of 2016. They are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

10. Kim Philby videotaped lecture surfaces in Germany. While working as a senior member of British intelligence, Harold Adrian Russell Philby, known as ‘Kim’ to his friends, spied on behalf of the Soviet NKVD and KGB from the early 1930s until 1963, when he secretly defected to the USSR from his home in Lebanon. Philby’s defection shocked Western intelligence and is seen as one of the most dramatic moments of the Cold War. In April of this year, the BBC found a videotaped lecture by Philby in the archives of the BStU, the Federal Commissioner for Stasi Records in Germany. During the one-hour lecture, filmed in 1981, Philby addresses a select audience of operations officers from the Stasi, the Ministry of State Security of the former East Germany. Excerpts were aired publicly for the first time.

9. Britain’s MI6 to increase in size by 40% by 2020. It was revealed in July that, according to satellite images, the headquarters of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, known as SVR, has doubled, and possibly tripled, in size in the past nine years. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the British government plans to implement a 40 percent increase in personnel numbers for MI6 over the next four years. The agency, which is formally known as the Secret Intelligence Service, currently employs about 2,500 people. But that number will rise to approximately 3,500 by 2020. Experts agree that we are witnessing the most significant growth in the size of state intelligence agencies since the end of the Cold War.

8. Israel’s Mossad has a successful year, allegedly. It has been quite a year for Israel’s primary external intelligence agency, the Mossad. In 2015, the secretive organization got a new director, Yossi Cohen. Since that time, it has emerged that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, a senior member of the military wing of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the Gaza Strip, has defected to Israel. Mossad is also believed to be behind the killing of Mohamed Zaouari, a senior aviation engineer who headed Hamas’ unmanned aerial vehicle program. Zaouari was shot dead outside his home in Tunisia earlier this month, by a group of assailants using gun silencers.

7. Information points to previously unknown ISIS spy agency. According to The New York Times, the Islamic State has set up a secretive intelligence agency whose task is to set up sleeper cells abroad and has already sent “hundreds of operatives” to Europe and Asia. The ISIS intelligence agency goes by the name Emni and appears to be a multilevel organization that includes domestic and external operational components. Emni’s external unit is tasked with conducting terrorist operations abroad. These are the responsibility of several lieutenants, who are permitted to recruit the most capable members of ISIS from around the world.

6. South Korea announces most high-profile defection from North since Korean War. An announcement issued by the South Korean government in April said it had given political asylum to a colonel in the Korean People’s Army, who worked for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, a military-intelligence agency that resembles the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division. The unnamed man is the most high profile defector to the South since the end of the Korean War in 1953, according to authorities in Seoul. Meanwhile, Thae Yong-Ho, the second-in-command at the North Korean embassy in the United Kingdom, also defected with his wife and children in August, and was given political asylum in South Korea.

This is part one in a two-part series; part two is here.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 29 December 2016 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part II

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part two in the series; part one was published yesterday.

5. CIA may have pulled officers from Beijing embassy following OPM hack. Up to 21 million individual files were stolen in June 2015, when hackers broke into the computer system of the US Office of Personnel Management. The office, known as OPM, handles applications for security clearances for agencies of the federal government.ch The breach gave the unidentified hackers access to the names and sensitive personal records of millions of Americans who have filed applications for security clearances. In late November it was reported that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) pulled a number of officers from the United States embassy in Chinese capital Beijing, following the massive cyber hacking. The irony is that, according to The Washington Post, the records of CIA employees were not included in the compromised OPM database. The latter contains the background checks of employees in the US State Department, including those stationed at US embassies or consulates around the world. It follows that US diplomatic personnel stationed abroad whose names do not appear on the compromised OPM list “could be CIA officers”, according to the paper.

4. Provisional IRA ‘still broadly in place’, says Northern Ireland police chief.. On July 28, 2005, the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), which fought British rule in Northern Ireland for decades, announced that was ceasing all paramilitary operations and disbanding as of that day. Three years later, the Independent Monitoring Commission declared that the PIRA’s Army Council, which steered the activities of the militant organization, was “no longer operational or functional”. In the ensuing years, which have seen the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement that restored peace in Northern Ireland, it has been generally assumed that the PIRA had ceased to exist. In August, however, George Hamilton, the head of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told reporters that “some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” in the area. Hamilton was speaking in reference to the murder earlier that month of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast. McGuigan, a 53-year-old father of nine, was a former member of the PIRA, who had fallen out with the organization. He was gunned down at his home, allegedly in retaliation for the murder last May of Gerard Jock Davison, a former commander of the PIRA, who was also shot dead in the Markets area of Belfast.

3. US Pentagon may have doctored intelligence reports on the Islamic State. Many Middle East observers, including this website, have made notably dire projections about the continuing reinforcement and territorial expansion of the Islamic State. In August, a leaked US intelligence report published by the Associated Press said the Islamic State’s strength had remained stable throughout 2014 and 2015, despite a US bombing campaign. However, earlier assessments by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which were communicated to senior US policymakers, including President Barack Obama, were far more optimistic about America’s ability to defeat the militant group. Why the discrepancy? According to The Washington Post, which published the story in late August, officials with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), the Pentagon body that directs and coordinates American military operations in Egypt, the Middle East and Central Asia, had systematically doctored the conclusions of intelligence reports about the Islamic State before passing them on to American leaders. It appears that the evidence pointing to deliberate manipulation of intelligence assessments was convincing enough to prompt the Pentagon’s Office of the Inspector General to launch an official probe into the matter.

2. China and Taiwan swap jailed spies in historic first. Few ongoing intelligence conflicts are as fierce as the one that has been taking place between China and Taiwan since 1949, when the two countries emerged following a bitter civil conflict between communist and nationalist forces. Observers were therefore surprised when, two weeks ahead of a historic November 7 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, the two countries announced a spy swap. The exchange, which took place in secret in late October, was the first of its kind in the history of the two bitter rivals. Taipei released Li Zhihao, a mysterious Chinese intelligence officer known in spy circles as “the man in black”, who had been arrested in 1999 and was serving a life sentence. In return, Beijing freed Chu Kung-hsun and Hsu Chang-kuo, two colonels in Taiwan’s Military Information Bureau, who were arrested in mainland China’s nearly a decade ago. It is believed that they were the highest-ranked Taiwanese spies imprisoned in China. Their release, therefore, marks an unprecedented development in Chinese-Taiwanese relations.

1. Russia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, now officially sharing intelligence in war against ISIS. The increased involvement of major powers in Syria has been arguably the greatest intelligence-related development of 2015. The United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, are only some of the state and non-state actors that are now actively engaged on the ground in Syria, both with armies and with intelligence personnel. A significant related development is the growing relationship between the intelligence apparatus of US ally Iraq and a number of countries with which Washington has an adversarial relationship. Intelligence-sharing had been practiced for a while between Russia, Syria and Iran. But in September of this year, Iraq entered the intelligence alliance for the first time. According to the Baghdad-based Iraqi Joint Forces Command, the agreement entails the establishment of a new intelligence-sharing center in the Iraqi capital. It is staffed with intelligence analysts from all four participating countries, who pass on shared information to their respective countries’ militaries. In October, The Washington Times reported that Iraq had been fully integrated into the Russian-led intelligence-sharing alliance, and that the Iraqi government was already using Russian-supplied intelligence in its war against the Islamic State, according to officials in Baghdad.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 31 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2015, part I

End of Year ReviewEver since 2008, when we launched intelNews, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence while providing an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2015 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2016 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories, which are listed below in reverse order of significance. This is part one in the series; part two is available here.

10. Is the United States military sharing intelligence with Syria? Officially, the US government is opposed to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Washington has repeatedly stated that peace in Syria can only be achieved if the Assad family abandons power. But could it be that the common goal of combatting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked groups is prompting a behind-the-scenes collaboration between the two countries? In a report published recently in The London Review of Books, veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh claimed that America’s military leadership had secretly shared intelligence with Damascus in an effort to aid al-Assad’s efforts to defeat Islamist groups in Syria. What is more, Hersh alleged that the White House, including US President Barack Obama, had not authorized the intelligence sharing and was not aware of the secret arrangement. If Hersh’s sources are correct, this development would indicate a growing gap between the White House and the Pentagon over America’s position toward the Syrian Civil War.

9. After much speculation, the Mossad gets a new director. For years, intelligence observers have monitored the growing rift between Israel’s primary intelligence agency, the Mossad, and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In sharp contrast to the Likud party chairman, the Mossad has consistently argued that Iran voluntarily halted its nuclear program before 2012, and that establishing peace with the Palestinians is far more critical for Israel’s security than halting Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Moreover, senior former Mossad officials have joined calls urging Netanyahu to stop criticizing Washington’s Middle East policy and work together with the White House. In early December, the Israeli Prime Minister announced in a hastily announced press conference in Jerusalem that Yossi Cohen, a 30-year Mossad career officer, would lead the agency. Cohen left the Mossad in 2013 to chair Israel’s National Security Council and advise the prime minister, with whom he is believed to have a very close personal relationship. Does his new appointment mean that the Mossad will adopt a more pro-Likud stance on Israel’s foreign policy? Given the urgent regional pressures that Israel faces, it should not be long before we begin to find out.

8. The CIA was running a double spy inside German intelligence. In 2015, the relationship between the US and Germany continued to be negatively affected by the revelation two years ago that the National Security Agency had bugged the personal cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. However, American intelligence agencies appear to have also targeted German government secrets using human assets. In July of 2014, Germany //expelled// the Central Intelligence Agency station chief in Berlin, following the arrest of Marcus R., a 31-year-old, low-level clerk at the Bundesnachrichtendienst, or BND, Germany’s external intelligence agency. More details about the double spy emerged at his trial this year. The court was told that the spy may have given his American handlers information on the real identities, as well as operational aliases, of nearly 3,500 German intelligence operatives. German government prosecutors alleged that Marcus R. spied for the CIA for approximately two years, during which he supplied the American spy agency with around 200 classified German government documents in exchange for around €25,000 —approximately $30,000.

7. Who killed Alberto Nisman? In January of this year, Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman accused the President of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, and senior members of her cabinet, of having deliberately obstructed a terrorism investigation. It concerned the bombings of the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, which killed nearly 100 people. For years, Israeli authorities have accused Iran of perpetrating the attacks. But Nisman claimed that senior Argentine politicians colluded with the government of Iran to obstruct the investigation into the attacks, in exchange for lucrative commercial deals with Tehran, involving oil and arms exports. Then, on January 19, just hours before he was due to give Congressional testimony on the subject, Nisman was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment, which had been locked from the inside. In response, President Kirchner accused the Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado (SIDE) of feeding Nisman fabricated information implicating her and her government minsters in a fictional collusion with the Islamic Republic, and then killing him in order to destabilize her rule. She has since dissolved SIDE and charged its leadership with involvement in Nisman’s killing.

6. NSA allegedly spied on every major French company. In June of this year, French President Francois Hollande convened an emergency meeting of the Conseil de la Défense, the country’s highest national security forum, to discuss revelations that the United States spied on three French heads of state, including himself. Documents leaked by American defector Edward Snowden appeared to implicate the US National Security Agency (NSA) in spying on President Hollande, as well as on Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy, who ruled France from 1995 to 2012. Later that same month, however, further reports published by WikiLeaks suggested that the NSA collected information on export contracts by French companies and sought inside information on France’s position on international trade negotiations. According to the documents, the NSA target list included every major French company, including car makers Peugeot and Renault, banking conglomerate BNP Paribas, as well as Credit Agricole, one of Europe’s leading agricultural credit unions. It is one thing to collect political or military information on a foreign country; it is quite another to spy for financial reasons, as the US itself has argued before. But if the WikiLeaks documents are factual, it would mean that even Washington fails to refrain from economic espionage.

Authors: Joseph Fitsanakis and Ian Allen | Date: 30 December 2015 | Permalink

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2014, part II

Angela Merkel and Barack ObamaBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org
Since 2008, when we launched this website, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2014 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2015 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories below, which are listed in reverse order of importance. This is part two in the series. Part one is here.

5. China stops using US-made communications hardware, fearing espionage. Authorities in China removed for the first time this year Apple products from a government procurement list, because of fears that they are susceptible to electronic espionage by the United States. The products that have been removed from the list include the iPad and iPad Mini, as well as MacBook Air and MacBook Pro products –though interestingly the inventory of removed items does not include Apple smartphone products. There are unconfirmed reports that Russia is about to act likewise, as some Russian lawmakers in the State Duma want deputies with access to classified government information to be banned from using iPhones and iPads, among other Apple products. Do they know something we don’t?

4. Western spy agencies secretly collaborating with Assad regime. Back in 2013, the United States and other NATO allies were preparing to go to war with Syria, in order to help topple the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, also known as ISIS, has prompted a remarkable U-turn in Western policy on Syria. Last January, the BBC confirmed that secret meetings were being held between Western intelligence officials and senior members of the Syrian government, aimed at “combating radical Islamist groups” in Syria. There are even compelling rumors that American spy agencies are sharing intelligence, and even weapons, with Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is now seen by Washington as a force that can help neutralize ISIS. What a difference a year can make!

3. US, Cuba, exchange alleged spies as part of rapprochement. Public spy-swaps between adversary governments are extremely rare occurrences. What makes the recent exchange of spies and alleged spies between Washington and Havana even more remarkable is that it appears to be part of a wider warm-up in relations between the two neighboring nations, which have remained virtually frozen since 1960, when the Eisenhower administration broke off all official diplomatic contacts with the Caribbean island. Still, there is one aspect of this very public exchange that remains a mystery: Washington is refusing to provide information about Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban intelligence officer who spied for the United States until his arrest by the Cubans in 1995. He was part of the exchange and is now believed to be on American soil.

2. NSA spy leaks continue to cause diplomatic headaches for Washington. The NSA has seen itself feature in news headlines more times than ever before this year. For an Agency that relies on secrecy and a low public profile, this is clearly a regrettable state of affairs. We now know about the existence of the NSA’s Office of Tailored Access Operations, described as “something like a squad of plumbers that can be called in when normal access to a target is blocked”. And we know that the NSA targets allies of the US with the same intensity that it targets its traditional adversaries. This, along with leaks about an alleged CIA operation against Germany, caused Berlin to break all intelligence collaboration with Washington and even expel the CIA station chief in the German capital. Turkey came close to doing the same, according to some sources.

1. Western spy agencies refocus on Russia. It is too early to proclaim a Cold War 2.0, but there is no question that Western intelligence agencies have actively began to refocus on Russia more intensely than at any time since the collapse of communism in 1991. This is especially noticeable in the United Kingdom, where military intelligence agencies are reportedly scrambling to rehire retired Russian-language analysts, due to the crisis in Crimea. Meanwhile, this past November Britain’s civilian spy agencies launched a new drive to recruit Russian-language speakers. According to some, the Cold War never ended. IntelNews regulars will recall that, in March of 2013, Oleg Gordievsky, the Soviet KGB’s former station chief in London, who defected to the UK in the 1980s, alleged in an interview that Russia operates as many spies in Britain today as it did during the Cold War.

[Second of two parts. Part one is here]

Year in Review: The 10 Biggest Spy-Related Stories of 2014, part I

Happy New YearBy J. FITSANAKIS and I. ALLEN | intelNews.org
Since 2008, when we launched this website, we have monitored daily developments in the highly secretive world of intelligence and espionage, striving to provide an expert viewpoint removed from sensationalism and conspiratorial undertones. As 2014 is about to conclude, we take a look back at what we think are the ten most important intelligence-related developments of the past 12 months. Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will surely agree that we witnessed our fair share of significant intelligence-related stories this year. Some of them made mainstream headlines, while others failed inexplicably to attract the attention of the news media. In anticipation of what 2015 may bring, we present you with our selection of stories below, which are listed in reverse order of importance. The stories are presented in two parts; part two will be published tomorrow. This is part one in the series. Part two is here.

10. South Korean ex-spy chief jailed for bribery and political interference. Much of the world’s media has focused on the seemingly endless stream of lunatic antics by the corrupt government of North Korea. But corruption is also prevalent south of the 38th parallel. The year 2014 saw the disgraceful imprisonment of Won Sei-hoon, who headed South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) from 2008 to 2013. Last September, a court in Seoul heard that Won ordered a group of NIS officers to “flood the Internet” with messages accusing South Korean liberal election candidates of being “North Korean sympathizers”. Prosecutors alleged that Won initiated the Internet-based psychological operation because he was convinced that “leftist adherents of North Korea” were on their way to “regaining power” in the South. A few months earlier, Won had been sentenced to prison for accepting bribes in return for helping a private company acquire government contracts.

9. Australia spied on US law firm representing Indonesia in trade talks. Spying for direct commercial gain is viewed as a taboo by Western intelligence agencies, who claim to focus their efforts solely on matters directly relating to national security. But according to documents leaked in February, the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) targeted Mayer Brown, one of the world’s largest law firms, because it represented the commercial interests of the Indonesian state in commercial negotiations with Canberra. To make things worse, the documents also show that that the Australian agency offered to share the intelligence collected from the operation with its American counterpart, the National Security Agency (NSA). After Indonesia withdrew its ambassador from Australia, the two countries signed a joint agreement aimed at curbing their intelligence activities against each other.

8. Hezbollah leader’s senior bodyguard was a Mossad agent. It turns out that the man who directed the personal security detail of the secretary-general of Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was an agent of Israeli intelligence. According to multiple sources in Lebanon and Israel, Mohammed Shawraba, 42, who was arrested earlier this year by Hezbollah’s counter-intelligence force, and is now undergoing trial, was able to penetrate the highest levels of the Shiite militant group and leaked sensitive information to Israel for several years prior to his capture. In 2008, Shawraba was promoted to director of the group’s Unit for Foreign Operations, also known as Unit 910, which collects information on Israeli activities abroad.

7. Public fight breaks out between Congress and the CIA. The intensity of the media’s focus on the recently published summary of the Congressional report on CIA interrogation practices is understandable. Having said that, we have known about the CIA’s use of waterboarding for years, and the CIA’s use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ goes back to the 1960s, so nobody can claim to have been shocked. What is perhaps more revelatory is the incredibly public spat between the Agency and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The CIA’s own inspector general found that Agency officers spied on Congressional staff investigating the CIA’s use of torture in interrogations. CIA Director John Brennan apologized for the incident, but many are wondering how this will affect intelligence oversight in years to come.

6. Turkey in turmoil as dozens arrested for spying on PM, spy chief. Turkey’s political system appeared to be sinking deeper into crisis this year, as over 100 police officers, some of them senior, were arrested for illegally wiretapping the telephones of high-level government figures, including the Prime Minster and the intelligence chief. They included two former heads of Istanbul police’s counterterrorism unit. Another 13 were later indicted for systematic “political and military spying” against senior government figures. However, critics of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government noted that one of the police officers arrested is the former deputy chief of the Istanbul police department’s financial crimes unit, which earlier this year led an investigation into alleged corrupt practices by senior members of the Erdoğan cabinet.

[First of two parts. Part two is here]